Policymakers | Freedom of Expression

Paralyzed by the ‘Heckler’s Veto’

NEW YORK TIMES   |  May 19, 2014 by Anne D. Neal

It’s no wonder that public confidence in our colleges and universities is dropping—and dropping rapidly. Colleges across the country are surrendering to a vocal minority of students and faculty who protest a speaker simply because they don’t agree with the speaker’s viewpoints. In contrast with the real and challenging diversity of an open society, the modern classroom—indeed, the whole campus—has become what former Yale Law School Dean Anthony Kronman rightly describes as “intellectually and spiritually frozen,” a place where fear of giving offense has silenced conversation on matters of importance.

How surreal that Rutgers University found Snooki largely safe to host (at $32,000), but a gaggle of faculty and students screamed until Condoleezza Rice withdrew from commencement. Minds firmly closed, they were unwilling or unable to tolerate challenge to the stranglehold of politically correct orthodoxy that reigns on college campuses.

As the late C. Vann Woodward stated, “Every member of the university has an obligation to permit free expression in the university. No member has a right to prevent such expression.” This is not a matter of right vs. left. It is about academic freedom vs. academic intolerance. It is about intellectual integrity. Speakers on both sides of the aisle have felt the sting of academic closed-mindedness, and too often they yield under the pressure.

At issue is a failure of leadership. It’s time that adults behaved like adults willing to redeem the campus from perpetual adolescence. Absent such intervention, higher education will be paralyzed by the “heckler’s veto,” and the bounds of acceptable discourse will be set by the hypersensitivity or the noise level of those who claim to be aggrieved. More than ever, college trustees must remember their fiduciary duty to protect the intellectual freedom that is the lifeblood and the glory of American higher education.


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